by Dulcie Langley
As our understanding of gender identity has broadened in recent years, being asked about your pronouns has become increasingly normalised. In 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added ‘they’ as the pronoun to use for a ‘single person whose gender identity is nonbinary’. Although some would argue that ‘they’ is strictly a plural pronoun, evidence of its use to refer to an individual can be found as early as the 14th century. In ‘William and the Werewolf’, a medieval romance produced in 1375, ‘they’ was employed to identify ‘each man’ rather than ‘he’. ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/ As if I were their well-acquainted friend’ wrote Shakespeare in ‘The Comedy of Errors', one amongst many famous examples.
English, like Swedish, does not typically classify non-human, non-animal nouns into genders, making it a ‘natural gender’ language. While objects are labelled ‘it’, people are traditionally referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’. ‘Gendered’ languages however, such as Spanish, German and French, assign genders to all nouns. Finnish, Estonian and Chinese are examples of ‘genderless’ languages, which do not categorise any nouns into a gender. Even when describing a human, no differentiation is made between ‘he’ or ‘she’.
With different languages incorporating gender in varying ways, how are communities across the world challenging their established vocabulary and grammatical structures to promote greater inclusivity? Here is a brief insight into just some of the progress being made:
The German language encompasses three grammatical genders - masculine, feminine and neuter. Almost all nouns that describe a person’s career are gender specific. For example, a ‘Lehrerin’ is a female teacher, with their male counterparts being called a ‘Lehrer’. The suffixes ‘r’ and ‘rn’ in German generally indicate the masculine singular and plural, with ‘in’ and ‘innen’ for the feminine singular and plural. This presents a conflict for those who identify as neither male or female.
Hanover was the first German city to mandate that all official communication use gender-neutral nouns. From 2019, the municipality started using language that does not portray a specific gender in all emails, press statements, brochures, forms, flyers and letters. The Federal Justice Ministry declared that all state bodies use gender-neutral formulations in their paperwork in 2014.
To convey gender neutrality, some Germans now include an uppercase ‘I’ in compound nouns to address both males and females simultaneously. Additionally, an asterisk known as the ‘gender star’ has started to appear, used by citizens who do not label themselves as either gender. The Association for German Language has rejected these alternative forms, as seen in many other countries. Other solutions for spoken German are currently being debated.
One might expect that a genderless language would provide a more comfortable experience for gender non-conforming people. Having the pronoun ‘tema’, which refers only to humans, does seem to be a positive thing for many Estonian people. When using ‘tema’, one does not explicitly reveal whether the person is male or female.
However, with traditional gender roles remaining deeply ingrained in society, assumptions about the gender that someone is describing can be just as powerful in genderless languages as those which are highly gendered. So-called false-generics are common, which are words that do not state a gender but encourage the communicators to typically imagine either a male or a female. These are also present in English, such as in the term ‘male nurse’. The noun ‘nurse’ does not automatically confirm to us that the person is a woman, but our expectations of masculinity and femininity lead us to this conclusion and thus it is often necessary to state any exceptions.
As such, while the pronoun ‘tema’ does not define people as either male or female, Estonians largely envision one of two genders when they use it. Genderless languages cannot therefore deliver a perfect solution for gender non-conforming people until gender bias itself is eliminated and gender non-conformity becomes fully accepted.
Spanish defines every noun as either masculine or feminine, marking these with different articles for each gender. Activists have thus been proposing new ideas to create a Spanish language that is more accommodating to gender non-conforming people.
In the United States, it is now common to use ‘x’ or ‘@’ to create a gender neutral noun. For example, using ‘latinx’ or ‘latin@’, rather than ‘latino’ or ‘latina’ for men and women respectively. Teens in Argentina have been at the forefront of the conversation about conveying a greater range of gender identities in Spanish. They have been replacing the masculine ‘o’ or the feminine ‘a’ with an ‘e’ in particular words.
A new pronoun for non-binary people, ‘elle’, has also been emerged beside ‘ella’ and ‘él’, meaning ‘she’ and ‘he’. Although the use of ‘elle’ is very much in its infancy, it has encouraged further discussion about personal pronouns in Spanish. As the language is spoken so widely across the globe, there is no defined rule. Different dialects and communities will develop their own modifications.
Hebrew assigns a gender to verbs, nouns and adjectives based on gender. To challenge the gender binary, LGBTQ+ and feminist activists have been switching to a feminine rather than masculine default in the plural, or referring to the same person with a mixture of masculine and feminine language.
Hebrew speakers in Israel and other Jewish communities are exploring a variety of ways to eradicate the gender binary from their language. A third gender has been systematically constructed by The Nonbinary Hebrew Project, for example, through identifying non-binary and queer references in Jewish texts such as the Talmud and Torah.
Speakers in Israel have also begun to include both the male and female cases on nouns and verbs, sometimes inserting a full stop in between them. For example, “I write” — “kotev” (כותב) in the masculine and “kotevet” (כותבת) in the feminine could become כותב.ת to express gender neutrality.